The clever thing about Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn is that unlike Morrison's Batman RIP, which dragged the disparate sci-fi elements of the Batman mythos kicking and screaming into a cohesive Batman narrative, Batman and Robin's study of the Batman mythos is all in the background. Whereas RIP holds such far-flung adventures as "The Superman of Planet X" directly up to the reader's face in the form of a half-crazed Batman, Reborn is far less self-referential, masking all its deconstruction as character elements. Batman and Robin presents itself with a healthy dose of twenty-first century irreverence, but it's no less thoughtful than the books that came before.
Batman and Robin offers Batman reinvented, but with nothing so dramatic as an elderly Bruce Wayne directing a young new Batman from afar, nor Batman-gone-underground leading an army of street toughs. There's still a Batman, still a Robin; they still get cases from Commissioner Gordon; heck, there's still even a Batmobile and a Batcave. But these latter elements have a small new shine in that the former flies and the other is now a 1970s-style playboy penthouse. And there's other subtle changes: Robin Damian Wayne -- always one moment from crippling his opponent -- takes the grim and gritty role; Damian is so like his father that even when he tears off his "R" patch and momentarily quits the partnership, he keeps his mask on -- like Bruce Wayne before him, there's no real difference between Damian and his superheroic alter ego. Batman Dick Grayson approaches his cowl with more hesitancy; he is moreover one of the few masked characters in Batman Reborn to actually take off his mask.
This gets to the core of the story; Morrison is playing with masks this time around. It's not just a new Batman and Robin (nor that, alongside the new Dynamic Duo's own struggle, they're each also pretending to be the same Batman and Robin that Gotham and Comissioner Gordon knew before, when obviously they're not), but also their new villains. Professor Pyg makes his mark by welding mind-control masks to his victims, ones that rip off the victim's very face if removed; Morrison never shows Pyg's own face, even when the heroes knock off his mask. We're introduced to the book's second villain, Flamingo, as he literally devours the faces of a plane-full of unsuspecting prostitutes. Pyg and Flamingo are each entirely their killer identities, and each seem the happier for it; even Robin very rarely second-guesses himself. Morrison suggests great power in the mask here, but also with it a necessary evil that Batman rejects.
Also rejecting his mask is former Robin Jason Todd. Even as Jason becomes more fully the Red Hood -- eschewing his nondescript leather jacket for a full-blown superhero costume -- he's also stopped dying his hair to look like Dick Grayson, and seems to have emerged on the other side of the superhero craze; Jason seeks justice, but in the guise of creating the Red Hood as a marketing brand to replace Batman in Gotham's consciousness.
While Dick sees Batman's cowl as a character he must play for others and the villains see their masks as their true selves, Jason recognizes his mask as something he can sell, something to cause others to do for him. Jason speaks in advertising slogans, he threatens to reveal Batman's identity through a social networking-type popularity contest, and, when faced with the deadly end of the Flamingo's gun, goads the villain to shoot him because "I'll come back!" Far from being insane, Jason's the only one in the book who really knows what the score is -- death, Jason suggests, is obviously just temporary to people like them -- and in the end Commissioner Gordon ships Jason off to Arkham; indeed, as we learned in Morrison's Batman RIP, it's the "Zorros" who end up in Arkham.
All of this takes place under the surface, however; Morrison spares us the whys and wherefores of the new Batman and Robin, with nary a prolonged flashback as in Batman RIP. Batman and Robin, especially the first three chapters with art by Frank Quitely, pretends to be (as Jason Todd describes himself) "smarter, faster, hotter" -- full of irreverence, as in the comic book sound effects that appear here in blood spatters and cracks in the walls.
But while there's some pep and refreshment to the boldness colors and slick art of Batman and Robin, the reader intuits a certain falseness when Jason exhorts his sidekick Scarlet that it's time her generation stood for something; what Jason stands for isn't good or real, and if what Batman Dick Grayson stands for is uncertain or outdated, at least it's true. Scarlet, perhaps, finds the only answer of all; as she leaves Gotham City and the whole mess of superheroics behind her, her mask melts off, leaving normalcy underneath. Jason thinks he's found the answer in meta-superheroics, but the real solution may just be quitting the game.
(Unless, of course, what's under Scarlet's mask is actually an arthritic Joker grin, and the real intent of Professor Pyg's quickly-glossed-over contagion was to spread slow-moving Joker gas. Morrison's staging Batman and Robin's climactic fight with Pyg at the circus where the Joker tortured the Commissioner after shooting Barbara Gordon brings a perfect bit of understated horror to the chapter -- indeed, though it's not addressed directly, that location ought affect the Commissioner and Dick more than anyone, not to mention the Joker's past history with Robins. It's also possible this is meant to be a clue of the Joker's future involvement -- given all the masks and faces in the story -- but either way it certainly worked here to enhance Pyg's grotesqueness.)
Batman and Robin means itself to be the next big thing, and succeeds -- it's splashy and trashy and a fantastic reinvention of the titular characters that could serve as a model for other, less-subtle reinventions. I'm eager to read the next volume mostly because of this book's cliffhanger ending; I would put more stock in the series itself however if I believed it to be an actual reinvention of Batman, rather than a miniseries wrapped up as an ongoing.
Maybe Batman and Robin will go on, and maybe Damian Wayne will remain as Robin, but Bruce Wayne will most certainly return as Batman, creating a far less interesting partnership than Dick Grayson and Damian have. In this way, I loved my first outing of Batman and Robin, but Batman RIP had for me more cache -- the latter is a series, and the former, an (entertaining) experiment.
[Contains full and variant covers, sketchbook section]
As a side note, I'm used to buying DC Comics hardcovers wrapped in plastic; when I found all the copies of Batman and Robin on the shelves unwrapped, I asked at the counter of my LCS and they told me all the books came that way. It's interesting -- the deluxe Batman RIP came wrapped, so it's not an issue of the deluxe size; it could of course be a production issue, but I wonder if this was intentional on DC's part so browsers in the bookstores might flip through and pick this book up. I don't think comics stores will have trouble moving these books, but maybe there was a question about the bookstores?